Showing posts with label adverbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adverbs. Show all posts

Friday, August 29

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Writers are often told not to use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example:

“You are dead to me,” he said coldly.

Or, worse:

“You are dead to me,” he whispered coldly.

(I bet you cringed just reading that!)

One reason adverbs are discouraged in dialogue tags is it encourages telling rather than showing. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In “On Writing,” Stephen King tells us that fear lives at the heart of all weak writing. Specifically, the fear that readers won’t understand what we’re trying to communicate. King writes:

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

“You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly. Your man may be floundering in a swamp, and by all means throw him a rope if he is … but there’s no need to knock him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.”

Most authors love to use adverbs in dialogue attributions.

Stephen King admits he’s used adverbs in dialogue attributions:

“Is this a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. [...] When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.”

That said, King has used fewer adverbs over the years, both in dialogue attribution and elsewhere.

I say all this not to defend King, since he needs no defense, but to give you a feeling for the lay of the land. What I really want to talk about is not that we shouldn’t use adverbs in dialogue tags but, instead, whether this dislike of dialogue tags is perhaps one of those things that change with the times.

Adverbs in dialogue attributions, past and present.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was my favorite book growing up. There was something about it, some quality. If you pressed me to put that quality into words I’d say it was magical and then feel disappointed in myself for under describing it. “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of the books that shaped how I think and what I like.

“A Wrinkle in Time” contained many tags (about 60) with adverbs in them. To put that in perspective, J.K. Rowling used fewer such tags in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” (about 40) and her book was over 20,000 words longer than L’Engle’s.

The finding that surprised me the most was from “The Goldfinch.” In that novel about 200 of the dialogue attributions contain an -ly adverb. That’s more than are in E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider,” combined. Actually, Patterson’s book only contains four such instances.

Even “The Maltese Falcon,” one of my favorite books, contains around 50 such tags.

Could it be that our attitudes, or perhaps our tolerance for, adverbs in dialogue tags has changed over the years? For example, the dialogue tags in “Never Go Back,” published in September 2013, are adverb free. That’s right, the book contains no tags with adverbs.

But, against that idea, “Lord of the Flies” was written in the 50s and only has six or so adverbs in its tags. And Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden Files series, published just this year, contains well over 100 dialogue tags with adverbs in them. 

Perhaps one could argue that, at least in part, whether to use adverbs in one’s dialogue tags is part of one’s writing style. Yes, Stephen King attributes use of adverbs to timidity—and he may well be right—but perhaps adverb use could also simply be a component of an author’s voice.

The most interesting thing that came from my investigations into using adverbs in dialogue tags is that the practice seems to cut across the literary/genre boundary. That surprised me. Of course, this could simply be an artifact of the small sample sizes I’m working with!

What do you think? Is the use of adverbs in dialogue tags a weakness—a sign of timidity—or is it simply a matter of style?

Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Boat Abandoned On The Beach" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, August 25

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.
I had a busy weekend.

What was I doing, you ask? I was combing through the contents of my digital bookshelf looking at the words, especially adverbs, my favorite authors (and others) used and how often they used them. 

I was curious whether genre authors tended to use adverbs more than their literary brethren.


Before I discuss the results gleaned from my weekend of wordy exploration let me emphasize two things.

a. So far I’ve only analyzed sixteen books of the millions that exist. Also, most of the books I analyzed were chosen because I love them. As a result, my sample set is profoundly skewed.

I hope to add more books to this analysis in the future and that should help to ease--though not eliminate--this problem.

b. As you probably guessed, I didn’t sit down and read all these books, a pencil in one hand, a pad of paper in the other! I wrote a program. Although I spent all weekend coding (my apologies for not posting on Saturday as I had promised) my program is woefully primitive. In order to get up and running in a relatively short period of time I’ve used approximations. 

For example, ideally no words used in dialogue would be part of this analysis. I tried to take them out but couldn’t make it work in the time I had. 

The Results: Adverbs

There’s so much we could talk about but to start things off, let’s talk about adverbs that end in ‘ly.’

Stephen King famously said in “On Writing” that, “The adverb is not your friend.” He even italicized it. 

King confesses to using adverbs. His admonition is to use them sparingly and with thoughtful deliberation.

But a mischievous part of me wondered: Does Stephen King heed his own advice? And, even if he does now, was he always as conscientious?

I won’t make you wait for an answer. He was.

Though King never used many adverbs to begin with, throughout the years, book after book, he has continued his war with the adverb, gradually diminishing its presence in his work. 

Here are the highlights of my analysis:

Adverb Variety

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” has the greatest variety of adverbs, while Stephen King’s “Under The Dome” has the least.

Adverb Frequency

Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” narrowly beat out E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the most adverbs used. Once again, Stephen King’s “Under The Dome,” had the fewest adverbs, though Lee Child’s “Never Go Back” came in a close second.

Only: the most used adverb

Hands down, “only” was the most used ‘ly’ adverb. (Of course, only isn’t just an adverb, it can also be used as an adjective or an informal conjunction.)

Further, the popularity of “only” isn’t just with genre authors. It was also the most common adverb in “Lord of the Flies” and “The Goldfinch.”

Of the 16 books I included in my analysis only three deviated from this pattern: 

E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey”
James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider”
Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front”

For these books, “really” was the most common ‘ly’ adverb.

Really, Slowly, Suddenly

The second most common ‘ly’ adverb was “really.” This was true for eight of the sixteen books I looked at. Other popular choices were: 

- Probably (“Never Go Back,” by Lee Child, “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King), 
- Finally (“Along Came a Spider,” by James Patterson), 
- Suddenly (“Salem’s Lot,” by Stephen King),


“Suddenly” is one of the words we are often told not to use. Never. Ever. Which is why I was startled by what my analysis revealed. Six out of the sixteen books I looked at had “suddenly” as one of the most frequently used ‘ly’ adverbs: “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “It,” “Salem’s Lot,” “Twilight” and “Lord of the Flies.”

There is no question that “Lord of the Flies” is well written. Golding won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984. My conclusion: it’s not so much which words are used as how the words are used. 

Don’t be a word snob!

It seems the pros use many of the words we’re told to stay away from. Yes, the pros use them sparingly, but these authors certainly haven’t eradicated them from their vocabulary. And neither should you! It isn’t what you have it’s how you use it.

Go easy on adverbs.

It seems Stephen King was right, the adverb is not your friend. One of the things which clearly separated “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”—two books which are widely held up as examples of books that are poorly written—from the rest was adverb use. Perhaps adverbs are a bit like salt, or anchovies. A little goes a long way.

Today I’ve concentrated on what we might call weak words, words we’re often advised to steer clear of. Next time I’d like to focus on strong words, words (strong verbs) we’re encouraged to use. Do the pros use more strong words or, again, is it just a matter of how the words are used?

By the way, just in case you’re curious, I did analyze my own writing and, compared to Stephen King, I’m definitely (see that? I just (ack!) can’t help myself) an adverb lover.

Thanks for reading. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Over Looking The Coastline" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, February 10

The Trouble With Adverbs

The Trouble With Adverbs
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs ....
- Stephen King, On Writing
Why do many writers hate adverbs?

When I first read Stephen King's On Writing I confess I thought his stance toward adverbs a tad harsh. How could a part of speech be categorically condemned? As Jeff Chapman writes:
Adverbs shade the meaning of the words they modify. They are grammatical and an accepted part of speech. I've seen them used by well-respected writers. So, what's behind the injunctions against adverbs? (Why No Adverbs?)
As I investigated the roots of the prejudice against the adverb (I was tempted to write "the lowly adverb" but restrained myself) I came to agree with the admonition to eschew the use of adverbs, or at least to try. This blog post is my attempt at a partial explanation of why we should treat the adverb with caution.

Much of what follows has been drawn from Charlie Jane Anders' article, Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

1. Adverbs Often Express A Redundant Meaning

Jeff Chapman writes:
Adverbs are redundant when paired with strong verbs. For example: "clenched his teeth tightly"; "moped sadly"; "screamed loudly"; "whispered quietly." In each case, the adverb adds no additional meaning to the verb. There is no other way to mope than with sadness and when someone whispers, they are being quiet.
But what about something like, "He yelled angrily"? It doesn't feel right, but the notion of being angry isn't directly implied by yelling.

For instance, you might yell to tell someone they're in trouble ("Look out! A bus!") or because you're in a nightclub ("I said, 'What would you like to drink?'"). In these cases, though, one shouldn't have to use an adverb because the context should make it clear whether the person yelling was angry.

2. Adverbs Are Sometimes Used To Bolster Weak Verbs

The idea being that the weak verb should be replaced by a strong verb rather than propped up by an adverb.

Before I get into this I feel I should say a few words about what is a strong, as opposed to a weak, verb. I looked this up and, apparently, strong verbs are irregular verbs and weak verbs are ... well, here's a quote:
A weak verb (or regular verb) is one that forms its past participle and past form by adding "-ed" or "-t". (Weak Verbs)
For instance:
Look at the most famous adverb in science-fiction history: Captain Kirk's "To boldly go where no man has gone before." What do you notice? Okay, yes, it's a split infinitive. But look past that. The verb is "go," which doesn't really tell us much in itself.

What would happen if you took the adverb out of that sentence? You get: "To go where no man has gone before." Which sounds bland, and a little apologetic. ("Hey, we're, uh, going, ummm, somewhere that we haven't gone before." "Oh. Are we there yet?" "No.")

From that, you might conclude that the adverb is necessary. But actually, it's more that the verb is weak. "Go" just doesn't give us much, and it definitely doesn't have the swashbuckling feeling Captain Kirk's ringing voiceover demands. So the best bet is to replace it with a stronger verb, like "venture," or "explore." Or how about: "To walk where no man has walked before"? It's evocative and calls to mind men walking on the Moon. (Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?)
I love Star Trek so just let me say that I think, here, the flexibility of the verb was a good thing. After all, we don't want to say, "To fly where no man has flown before," "To dive where no man has dived before," "To walk where no one has walked before," "To run where no one has run before," "To crawl ..." well, you get the idea.

But, point taken. Most of the time weak verbs are insideous. They creep into one's prose and weaken it with clutter. Jeff Champman writes:
Adverbs are used to prop up weak verbs. A better solution is to replace those weak verb/adverb pairings with a stronger verb. For example: replace "frowning angrily" with scowling; "running quickly" with sprinting; "petting softly" with caressing; "moving slowly" with creeping. (Why No Adverbs?)

3. Using Adverbs In Dialogue Attribution

For instance,

"Get out of my house!" she said angrily.

From the dialogue itself it's probably clear the speaker was angry. Yes, it could be that there was a fire spreading through her house and she wanted everyone to evacuate but the context should make the meaning clear.

4. The Adverb And Purple Prose

Charlie Jane Anders gives "He smiled thinly" and "He grinned wolfishly" as examples of adverbs aiding and abetting purple prose.

Of course she's right. Adverbs are likely present in a lot of prose that could be described as purple (that is, excessively ornate prose that does not further the story).

That said, it's interesting only one -ly adverb occurs in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous first sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Purple prose, Wikipedia)

Are Adverbs Irredeemable?

Charlie Jane Anders concludes:
But adverbs aren't necessarily all bad, and they can spruce up your writing if you use them judiciously. Here's a test you should apply before using an adverb.

1) Does it change the word it modifies? Does it make the verb or adjective mean something drastically different?

2) Does it convey some vital piece of information in a way that's better or more evocative than real description or a stronger verb by itself?

If the answer to either or both of these things is "Yes," then go ahead and use an adverb. There's nothing wrong with an adverb, if it conveys new information or provides a distinct slant on something.
I couldn't agree more!

Professor Quest has written a wonderful article The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs in which he talks about Fitzgerald's use of adverbs to, "create internal tensions or to emphasize points-of-view". He writes:
[In The Great Gatsby] People intrude deferentially; their eyes roam speculatively across empty ballrooms. At one point, Gatsby's house is lit like Coney Island at night, every door and window wide open. As Nick turns away, he speaks of the house "blazing gaudily on."
Charlie Jane Anders writes:
For example, "horribly fatal" doesn't tell us anything new. "Hilariously fatal" does. So does "moderately fatal." So does "arguably fatal." I will never quibble with anyone who wants to use phrases like "statistically significant number of maimings." An adverb can signal a certain tongue-in-cheekness by undermining or tweaking the adjective it goes with, like: "the savagely handsome first officer." Or "the obnoxiously sexy co-pilot."
I'll give Jeff Chapman the last word:
So, should you ever use an adverb? They are permissible in a few cases. It's reasonable to employ them in dialogue. People use them when they talk. In other cases, an adverb is adequate to create a mental image and rewriting makes the prose wordy. Consider this example: "The man stood silently at the window" versus "The man stood at the window making no noise." The instance with the adverb is more concise. The rewrite is longer and draws unnecessary attention to the phrase "making no noise".

It is very easy to fall into the adverb traps. The good news is that they are easy to find. Search your manuscript for "ly" and consider each instance. You will be surprised how much richer your writing will be when you eradicate those adverbial weeds from your prose. Happy weeding.

A Disclaimer

None of this adverb hate applies to your first draft. When you write, ignore everyone except your own muse. On your first draft you're birthing a story so it's going to be messy. Use all the adverbs you want. You'll start cleaning things up on your second draft.

Other articles you might like:

- 8 Tips For Finding The Motivation To Write
- Describing Character Reactions And Emotions: She Smiled, He Frowned
- Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Photo credit: "?" by Bruna Schenkel under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.